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July 20, 2020

An Exclusive Excerpt From Perumal Murugan’s Latest Novel ‘Estuary’

Translated from Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, ‘Estuary’ is the delicate story of a father and his son, and of the family at large, focusing on the weight of familial expectations in the life of a salaried, middle-class man

Once she became pregnant, it was determined that she was carrying a doctor. They decided they would have to start coaching the child right from birth. Every time they spoke to the infant, they would have to ensure they imparted some knowledge to him. Every time Meghas folded his fists and wailed, Mangasuri imagined he was practising how to hold a syringe before stabbing a patient with it. The baby’s laugh had the restraint of a doctor’s. He knitted his brows into a frown, like doctors did. Mangasuri dressed him in the clothes she thought doctors wore.

Kumarasurar was pleased with this. But he pretended he wasn’t as zealous as his wife. The academic year began when Meghas was a year and nine months old. Kumarasurar had already found a reputed school and enrolled Meghas early so he would have a head start on his classmates. But the school, which had sounded like a hallowed institution on paper, now seemed unsatisfactory. Two-year-olds were not even taught the alphabet in its entirety! What kind of lackadaisical education did this school offer?

Kumarasurar couldn’t wait for the academic year to end. The moment it did, he shifted Meghas to a different school. Although this school had a tiny campus and the students were crammed into small, stuffy rooms, it had a good reputation. But once Meghas joined, Kumarasurar was devastated to learn they did not work full days. Once the children had had their lunch, it was naptime. There was also a rumour that sleeping pills were mixed into the food of children who fussed about napping. It was only when the parents went to pick them up in the evening that most of the children woke from their siesta. Children could sleep at home. They didn’t have to go to school to nap. Worse, having rested during the day, these children stayed up late and troubled their parents at night. Husbands who were longing for their children to sleep so they could have their wives to themselves began to despise the school. And so, once again, Kumarasurar looked for another school the next year.

Meghas studied in a different school each year. It appeared every school in town had the sole aim of preventing him from becoming a doctor. The eleventh year would culminate in the board examination. Kumarasurar and Mangasuri enrolled him in a famous school outside the town. Kumarasurar had to travel some distance to drop off his son and then come back to his office. This took a toll on him. But it was a crucial year. It helped that he worked in a government office, and in a department whose existence everyone seemed to have forgotten. No one kept tabs on the hours he clocked.

All of a sudden, a head was appointed to supervise the Department of Statistics. This man was resentful of his job. He figured his transfer to a department of no importance had been carried out with malicious intent, and showered his frustration on his subordinates. If someone was late by five minutes, he would glare at the offender. Each word he spoke seemed to have been marinated in venom. Kumarasurar was hard put to get through the year with his new boss. But he bore all the humiliation for his son.

Meghas, having completed fourteen years of education in fourteen different schools, did not let his parents down. He scored 780 marks out of a possible 800. He scored 99 per cent in mathematics. It troubled Mangasuri greatly that she couldn’t flaunt a perfect score to the world.

Not a day went by when she didn’t say, ‘If only you had watched what you wrote, you wouldn’t have let that one mark slip, my darling.’

One day, Meghas said, ‘Whose answer sheet should I have watched?’

Another day, he said, ‘But my friend didn’t let me watch what he was writing.’

Yet another day, he said, ‘I was in the first row. There was no one sitting before me.’

Meghas laughed it off. But Mangasuri would carry the burden of the one lost mark all her life.

Excerpted with permission from Estuary, Perumal Murugan, translated by Nandini Krishnan, published by Westland/Eka, July 2020.

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